Over the past decade, an alarming number of people have begun to consume drugs like Spice, K2, and synthetic marijuana. When a state or federal agency outlaws the drugs, a new synthesis is often created. Sometimes that synthesis has a component that kills, sometimes it makes the user hallucinate or have seizures. But the price of the drug, usually $5 or less, keeps customers coming back.

On the Planet Money podcast creator Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi recently appeared on the High Plains Public Radio to explore the history of these so-called “synthetic marijuana” began.

The Origins of Spice and K2

John W. Huffman is a retired organic chemistry professor from who helped create the multibillion-dollar synthetic drug market began in the early 1990s when Spice and K2 started making their ways into gas stations and head shops. It wasn’t his fault. It was merely the research paper he contributed to that made it onto the internet.

Huffman and his team of researchers created a compound that stimulated the cannabinoid receptor, which science has been trying to use for pharmaceutical purposes for years. Scientists were interested in ways to use that receptor to help with sleep medicine, appetites, and pain medicine. But they weren’t quite sure how it worked.

Huffman and his colleagues eventually created more than 300 new compounds and tested them on rats. The formula that ended up in Spice hadn’t seemed significant to the research team. But it was later found in Spice and K2 formulations. A drug dealer or chemist had simply stolen some of the more potent formulas from an online copy of the research paper.

K2 and Spice were born, and variations have followed.

Online Database for K2 and Spice

A medicinal chemist with the Psychoactive Surveillance Consortium and Analysis Network, Sam Bannister, says prohibition isn’t solving the synthetic drug problem. The drugs are cheap, and what he calls “ruthless profiteering” is driving the epidemic.

Last year, there was a wave of overdoses in New York, Washington DC, and states across the US. The UK has had an epidemic of synthetic drug use as well.

Bannister wants the database to aid doctors and first-responders so they can test the drugs and prepare for the often dramatic side effects that come alongside variations of K2. Police could also identify the substances and prosecute the drug dealers based on the compound.